"This is called a Revisionist Western because I revised the way Westerns normally play, but I think that those other Westerns are revisionist…this is what really happens."
After a certain point, the American Western film became almost necessarily Revisionist. The Hired Hand (1971) arrived at the same time as other louder, brasher pictures; but few remain as compelling and timeless today.
Director: Peter Fonda
Producer: William Hayward
Writer: Alan Sharp
Cinematographer: Vilmos Zsigmond
Editor: Frank Mazzola
Music: Bruce Langhorne
Cast: Peter Fonda, Warren Oates, Verna Bloom, Robert Pratt, Severn Darden, Rita Rogers, Ann Doran, Ted Markland, Owen Orr
US Theatrical Release: August 11, 1971
US Distributor: Universal Pictures
The film, directed by Peter Fonda, follows the story of a working farm hand (Fonda), exhausted from seven years of itinerant life, returning to the wife (Verna Bloom) and farm he had abandoned. His wife agrees to let him stay on as a hired hand, but their relationship quickly complicates. Another plot emerges, in the classic tradition of the retired gunslinger pulled back into violence (see Destry Ride Again) as outlaws kidnap his former partner (Warren Oates).
Despite this ostensible plotting, the tone of the film, moody and naturalistic, can only be called contemplative. Fonda set out to explore the Jungian archetypes of “American mythology,” and the true story emerges as the relationship between “innocence, ambiguity, and wisdom,” in conflict with human appetites. A prayer read by Oates, lifted from the Gospel of Thomas acts as the picture’s central theme: “His disciples said to him: On what day will the kingdom come? <Jesus said:> It will not come while people watch for it; they will not say: Look, here it is, or: Look, there it is; but the kingdom of the father is spread out over the earth, and men do not see it.”
Revisionist v. Classic Western has long been dismissed as one of those false dichotomies. Films like The Oxbow Incident (1943), Winchester 73 (1950), Ride Lonesome (1959), and even The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1963) have enough thematic complexity to subvert any simplistic narrative about masculinity and the founding of the “American West.” But it’s still important to hold up the beauty and art of The Hired Hand as a compelling example of the New Hollywood aesthetics that came to revitalize independent film in the 1970s. The cinematography is gorgeous—morning shots were shot in the morning, and campfire scenes were lit by campfire; one reviewer claimed there were “more sunsets in the Hired Hand, than the rest of the Warner Brother’s catalog. It’s not any sort of coincidence that Henry Fonda starred The Oxbow Incident, or that Carradines, Keaches, and Quaids overran The Long Riders in 1980, because in the end it’s impossible to really kill your father, and certain mythologies die hard.
Encroaching on themes of mysticism and ecstasy, The Hired Hand, occasionally employs the available cinematic language of the time, with overlays and acid washes (think 2001’s Jupiter landing psychedelia); but far from solipsism, these effects are crisp and jarring. This film, with all its beauty and brooding ambivalence, deserves a celebrated place in American independent cinema.